A Journey of a Thousand Years

By Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

This article was originally published in the October 2017 edition of NewsNet

POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews was created from the inside out. Before there was a museum, before there was a building, before there was a collection, there was a plan for the exhibition. The story – the thousand-year history of Polish Jews – came first. All else followed. The museum and the story are an agent of transformation. Polish visitors will encounter a history of Poland, but in a way they have never experienced. Jewish visitors will discover a history of what was once the largest Jewish community in the world and a center of the Jewish world, a place where a Jewish minority was able to create a distinctive civilization while being part of the larger society. All visitors will encounter a Poland about which little is known and much is misunderstood, a country that was one of the most diverse and tolerant in early modern Europe, but is today one of the most homogeneous.

As a result of the Holocaust, 90 percent of Poland’s prewar Jewish population of 3.3 million was murdered, and the world they created was destroyed with them. A thousand years of continuous Jewish presence faded from view, largely overshadowed, understandably, by the Holocaust. All the more reason was it important to bring the history of Polish Jews, all one thousand years of it, to life in Poland. Grażyna Pawlak was inspired by the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1993 to propose a museum dedicated to the history of Polish Jews, in Warsaw. She was working for the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland, an NGO established in Poland in 1951. In 1994, the city of Warsaw designated the location for the future museum. It would face the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, in the heart of Warsaw’s prewar Jewish neighborhood and the Warsaw ghetto, which the Germans had reduced to rubble after suppressing the Warsaw ghetto uprising in 1943. The museum would complete the memorial complex. At the monument, one would honor those who perished by remembering how they died. At the museum, one would honor them by remembering how they lived.

The Association formalized the project in 1996, with Jeshajahu Weinberg as chair and Jerzy Halbersztadt as project director and later as the museum’s first director. Event Communications, a London design firm, completed the “Masterplan” for the exhibition in 2004. In 2005, the Association, Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, and the city of Warsaw founded the museum through what was the first public–private partnership for a major cultural enterprise in Poland. The public partners paid for the building, while the Association, led by Piotr Wiślicki and Marian Turski, produced the exhibition and raised the funds for it. In the same year, Rainer Mahlamäki won the international competition for the building. The discrete glass exterior contrasts with the dramatic interior to convey a message of light, transparency, reflection, and openness. The result is one of the largest museums dedicated to Jewish history in Europe, with a total of 16,000 square meters, 12,000 square meters of usable space, and 4,200 square meters dedicated to the core exhibition. There is a temporary exhibition gallery, 470-seat auditorium, screening rooms, an education center, a family education center, resource center, café and restaurant, and museum shop. The building opened in 2013, and the grand opening, with the core exhibition, which was produced by Nizio Design International, took place in 2014. About 2 million people have visited POLIN Museum to date. Today, the museum is supported by the city of Warsaw, Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, funds raised by the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland, and grants. In addition there is earned income from ticket sales, space rental, and the like.

The multimedia narrative exhibition, “A Journey of a Thousand Years,” was created by an international academic team that was involved from beginning to end, a young Polish curatorial team, hundreds of subject specialists, two design companies, and several multimedia designers. The result is a unique visitor experience, a continuous visual narrative within a theater of history. The historical narrative is guided by a set of principles, first and foremost, the principle of setting the Holocaust, which is the largest of the seven historical galleries, within a thousand year history of Jewish life. The history of Polish Jews in any given period is presented in its own terms and not through the lens of what happened later. Our mode of narration – in the historical present and in “first person” – immerses the visitor in the moment of the story, as it unfolds in multiple voices, with no foreshadowing or back shadowing of later events. The design of the exhibition follows from these principles. As an institution of public history and lifelong learning, POLIN Museums aims to create a zone of trust, a space of constructive engagement for engaging difficult subjects.

The core exhibition informs the museum’s programs. A jewel in POLIN Museum’s crown is its innovative Education Center, which reaches not only Polish schoolchildren, but also international groups. Our Museum on Wheels travels to towns with a population of less than 50,000 and engages local residents in the Jewish past of their towns and Poland’s historical diversity. Disability access and programming are a priority, as is sensitivity training for law enforcement, clergy, and other professionals. Artistic residencies and social actions activate a wide public, to mention only the annual Daffodil Campaign on April 19, the anniversary of the outbreak of the Warsaw ghetto uprising – hundreds of volunteers hand out thousands of yellow paper daffodils and tell passersby about the Warsaw ghetto uprising. Marek Edelman, a leader of the uprising, would lay daffodils sent to him anonymously at the monument on April 19 each year. This gesture is the inspiration for the Daffodil Campaign.

Launched in 2015, POLIN Museum’s Global Education Outreach Program partners with Polish and international academic and research institutions to support internships, doctoral and postdoctoral fellowships, distinguished lectures, conferences, and publications. During the last two years, POLIN Museum has hosted seven GEOP Research Fellows, two editions of doctoral seminars, nine distinguished lectures, eight research workshops, three major international conferences, and numerous other academic events. Scholars at all stages of their career are invited to participate in GEOP activities and respond to calls for applications (http://www.polin.pl/en/geop). GEOP’s program is supported by the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture, the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland, and the William K. Bowes Jr. Foundation. 

We aim to fulfill Kenneth Hudson’s concept of “public quality,” namely “the extent to which a museum satisfies the needs and wishes of its visitors.” POLIN Museum, by presenting the history of Polish Jews as an integral part of the history of Poland, plays an important role in the historical consciousness of the Polish public. The museum also supports the renewal of Jewish life in Poland by fighting the fear and shame that prompted many families to keep the Jewish roots of their children a secret. At the same time POLIN Museum reconnects Jews abroad to their own history in this territory, which has been overshadowed, understandably, by the Holocaust. As a history of coexistence and conflict, cooperation and conflict, separation and integration, the history of Polish Jews is also a story for Europe today.

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett is the Curator of POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.